On Thursday night, Risley was abuzz (pun intended) with the Melodramatic Theatre Company’s latest production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As the title blatantly illustrates, the show is about a spelling bee in which the quirkiest of school children compete. Now, anyone who has ever watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee can attest to the dryness of the proceedings. How a playwright was ever inspired by that competition to make a coming-of-age musical just attests to the brilliance of the show.
The show focuses on six children who have won or placed into the competition at their respective schools. As they compete for the distinction as champion at the bee, we are shown small vignettes of their home lives as well as their navigation through the unfortunate pitfalls of puberty. The show’s adult characters make casual but important appearances as they deal with their own memories as children. Often, they also serve as a point of reference for the actions and interactions of their children, as the pressures or neglect of these sorts of family members amplify the already arduous process of growing up.
One poignant moment brought on by puberty is one that every guy can identify with: the “unfortunate erection.” Chip Tolentino (played by Ithaca College freshman, Grant Beals) is the returning champion of the bee whose second chance at spelling glory is cut short by his untimely daydream of Marigold Coneybear. Grant’s performance as the cocky Tolentino managed to capture the right comedic physicality of the role, especially when dealing with the aforementioned embarassment. Unfortunately, his voice failed to be as strong, breaking on a few pivotal moments (although, as he is portraying a young teen we can chalk it up to the usual voice cracks brought on by puberty). Judging by his disposition following these moments, Beals knew it, too. He was not alone, however; there were a few line mishaps here and there as well.
The real standout performances in the show were from other IC freshman Briana Ford and Aaron Alcaraz who played Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre (yes, really) and Mitch Mahoney, respectively. Ford really channeled the neurotic and spastic nature of the precocious Logainne. Raised by two gay dads, Logainne lets everyone know that she is pro-gay — she literally wears a t-shirt that says it. She continually spouts liberal rhetoric that she has heard all her life without actually knowing what it all means. For instance, she sings that she likes fellow contestant Olive Ostrovsky because “she’s pro-choice but still a virgin.” The line gets hearty laughs and Ford’s delivery is perfect. Aaron Alcaraz’s performance was particularly, and consistently, strong. His vocals were flawless and quite soulful. He was dry and cynical enough to play the part of Mitch, one of Logainne’s flamboyant dads.
Another aspect that made the show quite enjoyable was the ad-libbing and audience participation. To fill out the bleachers of contestants the show picked four “random” contestants from the audience to participate in the proceedings (I do not actually know how they picked them, but I do know that one of them was related to the general manager of the show). It was impressive to see how the cast was able to think on its feet and somehow incorporate the newcomers as seamlessly as possible—although getting them in on the choreography was a little messier (but quite funny regardless). As I got to watch part of the rehearsals on Tuesday, I knew that they had certain parts prepared, but I do not recall a contestant spelling bingo wrong in rehearsal (the audience member got quite a few laughs by spelling “binga” after the judge had just sung the song). This definitely brought some unexpected pizzazz to the show, making it fresh for every new audience.
MTC and director John Hamel managed to stage a hilarious rendition of Spelling Bee that not only showcased bright new talent who, interestingly enough, come primarily from IC (in fact Trevor Stakiewicz ’15 is the only Cornell member of the cast). Each cast member was quite adept at playing this very eclectic group of children with heart. The audience falls in love with the kids even though most of us would have written them off as weirdos when we were their age. In regards to the physical staging, the crew really utilized the relatively cramped space of the Risley Theatre. Not only did the cast take the performance into the audience during certain parts of the show, but also donned the walls with pennants of notable winners like Gretchen Wieners, Meeryal Streep and Blue Ivy Carter. The stage floor was also painted with the Putnam County logo. These touches were simple, adding just enough to entertain without overwhelming the lively characters.
So take a few hours away from the intense paper writing and studying and go see Spelling Bee. When you do, remember the “adventures and misadventures of growing up”, as director Hamel put it, when your biggest academic accolade could come from simply knowing how to spell syzygy.
Original Author: Natalia Fallas